Extension Viewpoints: Information on rabbit ownership

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    By Robin Young
    PREVIEW Columnist

    Domestic rabbits can be raised for a variety of uses, including wool production, fur production, meat production and show animals. 

    With over 49 recognized breeds in the U.S., there are an assortment of rabbits for every use. Some of the more common breeds include angora (used for wool production), New Zealand whites (used for meat production) and American chinchilla (used for fur production).

    Raising rabbits is a good option for small acreages because it doesn’t take much space. Typical weights range from small (3-4 pounds), medium (9-12 pounds) and large (14-16 pounds). Each doe can produce 25-50 rabbits per year. 

    If you are new to rabbit ownership, it is important to keep in mind that your rabbit is not the same as wild cottontails or hares in your area. Much like a coyote and a Dachshund have different needs, so do domestic and wild rabbits. Domestic rabbits have not had thousands of years to adapt their genetics to the climate they live in. Unlike wild rabbits, domestic rabbits do not have the ability to seek out cooler places in the summer and warmer shelters in the winter.

    Regardless of the intended use of domesticated rabbits, it is critical to understand what rabbits need to be healthy and safe. While rabbits can be relatively easy to care for, be sure to provide proper housing, feeding and maintenance to avoid major problems. 

    Housing — To prevent fighting and cannibalism, rabbits must be caged separately, unless both rabbits are spayed/neutered. This absolutely includes siblings over 12 weeks old. A rabbit’s home should be at least four to six times the size of the rabbit, and bigger is always better if it is possible. The animal should be able to stand up. Rabbit housing should provide protection from elements (sun and cold) and have good ventilation. Rabbits do not tolerate extreme hot or cold. If a hutch is outside, be mindful of extreme hot and cold. Also provide a place for the rabbit to hide from predators looking in the cage. 

    Feeding — Rabbits like to chew on things to keep their teeth healthy. Provide untreated wood blocks for this purpose. If cages have all-wire flooring, prevent sore hocks on the rabbit’s feet by providing a board for the animal to sit and lay on. A nest box should be placed in the hutch prior to birthing to provide seclusion for the doe and protection for the litter. Feeding rabbits need a diet high in fiber to keep their gut bacteria healthy. They are naturally extreme browsers and would choose to munch on a variety of plants and roots if given the opportunity. Pelleted rabbit food contains a blend of the needed vitamins and minerals to keep rabbits healthy. Some things to add to the pelleted diet could be: mineral/salt licks, Timothy hay, and fresh fruits and veggies in moderation. Research any treats you want to give to make sure they are safe for rabbits. Avoid treats that are high in calories, especially sugars and fats, and avoid those that causes gas such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. Give treats in moderation. Fresh water should always be available. 

    Lifespan — It is not unheard of for a domestic rabbit to live 10 years or more, especially if kept as a pet. 

    Grooming — Unless the rabbit is a wool breed, they will not need regular brushing. Nails will need trimming a few times a year.

     Breeding — Breeding rabbits can be rewarding, heartbreaking and frustrating. Research the process well and have a plan for the baby rabbits, called kits. Before you breed, have a market identified. 

    Marketing — Have a plan. Housing extra rabbits you couldn’t find homes for will consume time, space and money. Raise rabbits for meat, breeding stock, angora wool, skins or youth programs (4-H and Future Farmers of America). Look for buyers such as restaurants, wholesalers, custom meat stores and individuals. Consider availability of slaughter facilities and packaging requirements for meat. 

    The Colorado Department of Agriculture regulates the slaughter and sale of meat. Direct-to-consumer sales differ from retail sale requirements. More details can be found at: https://cofarmtomarket.com/valueadded-products/meat-2/. 

    Biosecurity — Rabbits are susceptible to several diseases such as pasturella multocida, a respiratory disease, and the more recent rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus serotype 2 or RHDV-2. It is a highly contagious and fatal disease of domestic rabbits and wild rabbits. This is a foreign animal disease and is of high concern at the state and federal levels. The recent involvement of wild cottontails and hares is of particular concern. 

    Clinical signs — Often the only signs of the disease are sudden death and possibly blood-stained noses caused by internal bleeding. Infected rabbits may also develop a fever, be hesitant to eat, or show respiratory or nervous signs. Many of the rabbits confirmed with RHDV2 recently in Arizona and New Mexico have shown no clinical signs or gross pathology other than sudden death. 

    Transmission — RHDV2 can be spread through contact with infected rabbits, their meat or their fur, or materials coming in contact with them. Scavengers and birds may play an important role in indirect transmission of the RHD virus. 

    Prevention — Vaccines are only available in Colorado through private veterinarians who have applied for and been granted permission by the USDA to import and distribute the vaccine. Rabbit owners should practice good biosecurity measures to protect their animals from this disease, such as washing your hands before and after working with rabbits and not sharing equipment with other owners. Rabbit owners should also avoid contact with wild or feral rabbits. RHDV2 is not infectious to people or domestic animals other than rabbits. However, multiple dead or sick rabbits can also be a sign of tularemia or plague, diseases that can cause serious illness in people. Do not handle or consume sick or dead wildlife, and do not allow pets to contact or consume wildlife carcasses (https://ag.colorado.gov/animals/livestock-health/rabbit-hemorrhagic-disease-virus-rhdv2).

    To prevent diseases, clean cages regularly, isolate sick rabbits, limit unnecessary visitors inside the rabbitry and keep good records. 

    Resources — For further information: ARBA.net (American Rabbit Breeders Association) Rabbit Production, Penn State Extension — general production, breeds, budget and other considerations: https://extension.psu.edu/rabbit-production; Backyard Production of Meat Rabbits in Maine, University of Maine Extension https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/1044e/; Rabbit Industry Profile, USDA-APHIS — it is extensive and from 2002, but could provide some good insight if you are seriously considering getting into rabbit production: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/emergingissues/downloads/RabbitReport1.pdf; Bennett, B. (2018). Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits (5th ed.). 

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